Following the Victorian government’s ruling to allow girls to choose shorts and pants over dresses and skirts as uniforms, there is current community discussion on this subject in NSW.
The discussion is limited to reducing the disadvantage experienced by girls, through the introduction of trousers and pants options, removing the expectation on girls to wear dresses to school – gendered uniforms.
But could we go further and get rid of school uniforms completely? Should school children be given the freedom and responsibility to dress as they choose when they come to school?
The existence of school uniforms owes much of its heritage to our British forbears. School uniforms date back to the 16th century in Britain, the first school uniform thought to have been introduced in 1552 at Christ Hospital, London.
The United States and most west European nations, such as Finland, Norway, France and Germany, reject the need for a school uniform. Closer to home, school uniforms have become all the rage. In China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Pakistan strict school uniform practices apply.
In Australia, conforming to a school uniform policy is compulsory in most private, Catholic and state schools. As Europe, and even Britain, has sought to relax many of the school dress rules, Australia has become increasingly strict with what children are allowed to wear to school.
In keeping with our growing obsession with rules and regulations, we have imposed increasing “standards” on what is allowed and what is not allowed, in school uniforms. Our preoccupation with uniforms is rivalled only by that for league tables and competition.
The rationale for school uniforms is to create a level playing field – so the rich kids don't lord it over the poorer ones with their flashy jumpers and Nike trainers. The intention is to promote social equality and also to build school pride.
The argument is that by everyone dressing the same, we can't tell which children are from homes that are more privileged. And that by wearing the school symbols and motifs, the branding on ties, blazers and backpacks, we encourage honour and respect for the school.
Our children can see through this. They see the homes we come from, the cars we arrive in, the clothes we adults are wearing. Most of our kids couldn't care less about these things.
Children value their school because of the way it stands for the values it purports to represent – the substance at the heart of its message, not because of the logo on the school tie. If they are treated well, with respect and courtesy at school, if their efforts are acknowledged and encouraged, their sense of pride in their school will be nurtured.
It doesn't take a neat and tidy pleated skirt or pressed and crested school blazer to achieve this.
I suspect school uniforms might be more about marketing a school. Could it be more about using the children to help defend the school against competition from the private school around the corner?
In the less contemporary Australian schools, we continue to clothe children in outfits more suited to a 19th century London lifestyle than outdoorsy Australia.
Reviewing what girls wear to school is a great beginning and hopefully this can be followed by a review of whether we need school uniforms at all.